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Cries of McCarthyism over US Muslim hearing

Peter King, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, amid scenes of emotion and anger yesterday opened controversial hearings into what he calls the radicalisation of Islam in America.

Mr King, a Republican representative from Long Island, New York, who has also been flayed in the press for past ties with the IRA when it was pursuing a campaign of violence against Britain, dismissed critics who claimed the hearings were dangerous and racist by saying said the expressions of opposition had verged on "paroxysms of rage and hysteria".

Among the first witnesses called to testify was Keith Ellison, a Muslim Congressman from Minnesota, who castigated Mr King. He broke down recalling a Muslim-American student who perished in the collapse of the Twin Towers nearly 10 years ago. The young man, he said through gasping sobs, had "given everything for his fellow Americans".

By merely convening the hearings, Mr King attracted the accusation that he and other witnesses he has called, including Dr Zuhdi Jasser, president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, were querying the loyalty of every Muslim American to their country and implying that as a group they should be investigated. Critics say it recalls the late Senator Joseph McCarthy's pursuit of Communists in the United States.

"This is a historic event, but historic in a negative way," said Zak Dehlawi, 24, a Saudi-American who travelled from Baltimore to sit in the public gallery. Wearing a white knitted kufi, or skull cap, Mr Dehlawi said that Mr King had "learned nothing from past history". He worried the hearings would make the assimilation of Muslim Americans harder and feed al-Qa'ida's anti-American propaganda.

"There is already a vocal minority in America that actually hates Muslims and this will only provide them with fresh ammunition to make the claim that all Muslims are a danger to American security," Mr Dehlawi said.

A defiant Mr King insisted the hearings "must go forward", because "to back down would be a craven surrender to political correctness". He showed a chart of attempted terror attacks on US soil in recent years and catalogued those hatched by domestic Muslim Americans, such as the recent Times Square plot.

"I have repeatedly said the overwhelming majority of Muslim Americans are outstanding Americans," he said. But, he continued: "This committee cannot live in denial, which is what some would have us do."

Faced with charges that his past association with the IRA disqualified him from tackling terror issues, he said comparisons between the IRA and al-Qa'ida were misplaced. "I understand why people who are misinformed might see a parallel," he said. "The fact is, the IRA never attacked the United States. And my loyalty is to the United States."

Among Mr King's witnesses was Abdirizak Bihi, the uncle of Burhan Hassan, a Somali-American who, he said, was "brainwashed" and recruited by the imams in a Minneapolis mosque to fight with the jihadist group, al-Shabaab, in Somalia, where he was killed. When Mr Hassan and some of his friends vanished and surfaced as fighters in Somalia he and his relatives "were in a state of shock that words cannot express", he said.

Dr Jasser said: "Many mosques do teach an Islam that is spiritual patriotic and not in conflict with America. But there are also many that are transmitting ideas that are Islamist."

King's IRA connections

Some have questioned why Mr King has any role in anti-terrorism matters given his history as a supporter of the IRA.

In 1982, as a local politician on Long Island, he exhorted fellow Irish-Americans to "support those brave men and women who this very moment are carrying forth the struggle against British imperialism". In 1985, he said: "If civilians are killed in an attack on a military installation it is certainly regrettable, but I will not morally blame the IRA."

In later years, Mr King was credited with using his contacts with the IRA and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams to assist the Northern Ireland peace process.